I used to find chanting mortifyingly embarrassing. A tiny bit of me still sometimes does, usually when I’m doing it on my own in front of class and someone is still gawking at me even though I’ve asked everyone to shut their eyes! But the rest of me loves to chant. I’ll happily squawk along to Krishna Das in the car, I like the way my OM sounds in the shower and it’s my 2016 mission to teach my new parrot the Gayatri mantra. I really do believe it’s an important part of our yoga practice and the fact we English-es tend to shy away from it makes me a little sad. Chanting instantly connects us to ourselves, to the lineage of Ashtanga and to the ancient traditions of yoga itself.
We chant to book-end our practice as it is calms and centres us. Like taking time to ground ourselves in Samastitih (mountain pose) before we start our physical practice, it gives us focus, marking our space and time as sacred and special. On a metaphysical level, chanting is thought to raise our personal vibration. This brings us closer to our Source or Unviersal Consciousness (or whatever ‘God’ means to you).
Chatting to students, it seems a lot of the initial discomfort around chanting stems not just from classic British awkwardness but from concerns about chants being connected to a religion – whether Eastern or just any religion – cult or secret society. Rest assured, this isn’t the case. The chants we use in class are completely non-denominational.
Traditionally, chants are learnt by listening and repeating – much like pop songs on the radio. And as with pop songs on the radio, this means you often have absolutely no idea if what you’re singing is ‘right’ or 110% made-up. You learn to love it anyway. It adds to the experience. For example, there’s a common Ashtanga chant whose words will forever make me think of going for a wee in a caravan (Story for another day, maybe??!) (One that doesn’t actually involve either of those things!), until scarily recently I thought Fifth Dimension were all about the dawning of the ‘Age of Asparagus’… and what do you mean Jarmiroquai doesn’t have candy in his heels?? It’s all good.
So if you promise not to pay too much attention to the written words, and hoping it will make you feel more comfortable with using them, here are the English translations for the two most used Ashtanga chants – the opening and closing mantras. If the English leaves you just as confused or bemused as the Sanskrit –simply try to enjoy the sounds. Although rarely spoken today, Sanskrit is an ancient and sacred language where the sound’s innate vibration is what really matters.
(NB. The Sanskrit here isn’t correctly accented – my love of chanting unfortunately trumps my love of trying to get the Mac OS Extended keyboard to work… Apologies!)
Vande gurunam charanavinde
Samsara halala mohasantyai
Sahasra sirasan svetum
I bow to the lotus feet of the supreme Guru,
Who teaches knowledge, awakening the great happiness of the self-revealed,
Who acts like the jungle physician
Able to remove the delusion of conditioned existence.
In his guise as the divine serpent,
With 1000 white radiant heads,
In human form below the shoulders,
Holding the sword of discrimination,
The wheel of fire representing infinite time,
And the conch representing the divine sound.
To the sage Patanjali I prostrate.
For more chat on the meaning of OM – click here.
Closing chant, A.K.A. mangala mantra or auspicious prayer:
Svasti-praja bhyah pari pala yantam
Nyayena margena mahim mahisaha
Go brahmanebhyah subamastu nityam
Loka samastha sukhino bhavantu
Santih santih santihi
May all be well with man-kind,
May leaders govern the world with honesty and love,
Protecting all that is sacred – life,
So that all beings of the world can live happy and prosperous
As always, feel free to get in touch with any questions or comment below – and for those of you coming to Sunday’s workshop… yes! We are going to be using them, even if it’s just me chanting while I hope you close your eyes.